Being a wet blanket is not my choice of roles. Sunny people are far more popular than Lucy van Pelt with a cloud over her head, but I just don’t get it. All this cheering and deskfuls of anchor persons beaming about people power in Egypt and congratulating one another on their good fortune and courage in being “there,” at this turning point in history. (And yes, I’m afraid this is the mandatory Egyptian column.)
I know it is a subject we must approach with tremendous respect, even though as far as I can see not much happened. The ailing 82-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak (alleged to be very ill), and backed by the Egyptian military, packed his suitcases and was replaced by exactly the same government backed by the same military. Nufi Mubarak, just like Sadat and Nasser before him, was a dictator with powers delegated to him by the military, except Mubarak wore civilian clothes—a civvy suit being more becoming for a modern dictator than the outfits of Greek colonels and Argentine juntas, decked out in opaque sunglasses and army uniforms.
The Egyptian military clearly wanted a putsch and riddance of the old man, and the people gave them—unwittingly, no doubt—the smokescreen of a popular uprising, which everyone, protesters included, seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker. Now we have Egypt with a suspended parliament, a continuation of the 30-year state of emergency, and lots of promises about reform that have been made routinely since 1952 when King Farouk abdicated, packed up his Ginori china, left his gold furniture and took his second wife to Monaco, much closer to the European shopping sprees he loved—the only compelling reason I should think to be a dictator.
For two weeks the news media went bonkers. CNN’s Anderson Cooper put on a khaki shirt after he was manhandled in Tahrir Square. Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Barack Obama did one of their glides across the world stage. Were they for or against? What do you think, Richard? Well, I think they have to tread a very careful line here, Fareed. Almost only the Israelis had the sense to know that at a time like this, silence is golden.
Some prankster called Egypt’s protests the “Dignity Revolution,” which seems to be a euphemism for the not-much-happened revolution. The Egyptian people showed true dignity by coming out in the thousands with brooms to clean up Tahrir Square, which was a genuine newsworthy item. I’ll make a bet no Italian or Romanian protesters would do that, let alone Canadian ones. CUPE wouldn’t allow it even if the impulse hit.
This week’s media focus is the “ripple effect” in the Middle East: a pre-emptive sacking of the Jordanian government by King Abdullah II; promises from Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to end the 19-year state of emergency in “the near future.” A call for a “day of rage” by opponents of Syrian strongman President Bashar al-Assad. “We’re really seeing a reworking of the landscape of the Middle East,” said Isobel Coleman of a New York-based think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. Really?
There’s no denying the courage of Egyptians who went out to ask for civil liberties and “freedom” in a country where the police have rather more primitive methods of interrogation than the Mounties and your face is liable to be on film and studied for months after. Tahrir Square is not Main Street, Canada, where the police kindly divert traffic so protesters can march about. Nor is there any mileage trying to predict events in the Middle East, which has a bit of the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But this is what history has taught us so far:
Mobs may bring revolutions but not democracy. Most of the world has been ruled by autocracies just about forever, including now. What virtually all successful revolutions have in common is that they come when a repressive regime has begun to relax. Autocracies can self-correct without revolutions, but that generally takes one strongman’s decision to step down and transfer power, as in the case of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet or Spain’s Generalissimo Franco. Frankly, that approach is just about dead in a world where the minute a dictator finally does the right thing, he’s faced with asset freezes by the Swiss, and war crimes trials everywhere else.
Egypt is a fairly standard autocracy, the sort that reserves political succession, foreign affairs, matters of war and peace—and most of the country’s moolah—for itself and friends, while giving its people a certain amount of leeway, sometimes quite substantial. Totalitarian regimes control every aspect of an individual’s life and are both bloody and awful and come in two varieties: religious and secular. Theocracies are not limited to Islamism (Calvin’s Protestant Geneva, among others, was no picnic), while secular totalitarianism, like Nazism and Communism, is basically theocracy without the metaphysics.
The Iranian theocracy has reached such utter joylessness that it banned Valentine’s Day. That’s on the heels of banning mention of foreign food recipes in state media, all in the name of eradicating any hangovers of Western influence in order to promote their version of true Islamic identity. Yet in spite of the bullets and tear gas of the authorities, the Egyptian example did bring out the protesters in Iranian streets for the first time in two years.
Optimists like New York-based, Istanbul-born Melik Kaylan think that in the contest between “romance and laughter” and the “sour, paranoid” forces of a totalitarian regime, “the Iranian people can take comfort: no earthly authority has won that particular contest for long.” Maybe not in historical time, but they win long enough to condemn an entire generation. But as I began this column, I’m too much Lucy the pessimist, and I’d much rather be wrong on this one, Peanuts, than right. Long live the Egyptian revolution—whenever it comes.